Americans Think They Have the World’s Best Colleges. They Don’t. -NYTimes

The New York Times has an interesting article which argues that Americans Think They Have the World’s Best Colleges. They Don’t

Americans have a split vision of education. Conventional wisdom has long held that our K-12 schools are mediocre or worse, while our colleges and universities are world class. While policy wonks hotly debate K-12 reform ideas like vouchers and the Common Core state standards, higher education is largely left to its own devices. Many families are worried about how to get into and pay for increasingly expensive colleges. But the stellar quality of those institutions is assumed.

However, looking at data carefully gives a different picture.

America’s perceived international dominance of higher education, by contrast, rests largely on global rankings of top universities.

Specifically, just because the best universities in the US are the best universities in the world, does not mean that the average universities in the US are better than the average universities in the rest of the world, or even as good.


International university rankings, moreover, have little to do with education. Instead, they focus on universities as research institutions, using metrics such as the number of Nobel Prize winners on staff and journal articles published. A university could stop enrolling undergraduates with no effect on its score.

Looking at the impact of average universities on the average population is a different way to evaluate a country’s higher education program.

The fair way to compare the two systems, to each other and to systems in other countries, would be to conduct something like a PISA for higher education. That had never been done until late 2013, when the O.E.C.D. published exactly such a study.

The project is called the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (known as Piaac, sometimes called “pee-ack”). In 2011 and 2012, 166,000 adults ages 16 to 65 were tested in the O.E.C.D. countries (most of Europe along with the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea) and Cyprus and Russia. Like PISA, Piaac tests people’s literacy and math skills. Because the test takers were adults, they were asked to use those skills in real-world contexts. They might, for example, be asked to read a news article and an email, each describing a different innovative method of improving drinking water quality in Africa, and identify the sentence in each document that describes a criticism common to both inventions. The test also included a measure of “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” reflecting the nature of modern work.

As with the measures of K-12 education, the United States battles it out for last place, this time with Italy and Spain. Countries that traditionally trounce America on the PISA test of 15-year-olds, such as Japan and Finland, also have much higher levels of proficiency and skill among adults.

And, the situation is getting worse:

In 2000, American 15-year-olds scored slightly above the international average. Twelve years later, Americans who were about 12 years older scored below the international average. While American college graduates are far more knowledgeable than American nongraduates, creating a substantial “wage premium” for diploma holders, they look mediocre or worse compared to their college-educated peers in other nations.

Read the full article

A college education is worth half a million dollars, says new study

The New York Times has an interesting article pointing out that according to the latest data, going to college is clearly worth the time and money.

For a while now, a lot of discussions on the web and other media have centered around the rising costs of higher education, and the fact that many graduates find it tough to find a job after college, and are stuck with educational loans. However, according to the latest data (in the US), college definitely improves your earnings significantly:

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

Why did this have to be said? When calls for students to drop out of college get a lot of press coverage, this can send the wrong message.


When experts and journalists spend so much time talking about the limitations of education, they almost certainly are discouraging some teenagers from going to college and some adults from going back to earn degrees. (Those same experts and journalists are sending their own children to college and often obsessing over which one.) The decision not to attend college for fear that it’s a bad deal is among the most economically irrational decisions anybody could make in 2014.

But what about the fact that the cost of a college education has increased rapidly, and has far outstripped inflation?

It is still a no-contest between the cost of education and the benefits:

The much-discussed cost of college doesn’t change this fact. According to a paper by Mr. Autor published Thursday in the journal Science, the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.

Read the full article

Of course, all the above data is for the USA. I wonder how different the story would be if similar data existed for India. What do you think?

Better education at higher cost, or same education at lower cost?

Clay Shirky writes, that we are at an important inflection point as far as higher education is concerned, and we should get used to the fact that major changes will be forced upon us whether we like them or not.

While he is talking about higher education in the US, some of his thoughts would be relevant to India too.

The main point he’s making (regarding higher education in the US) is that the middle-to-late 20th century was the golden age of higher education – the various governments funded/subsidized education to a very large extent, for a variety of reasons. This led to the creation of a system with good quality education, but very high costs. Over time, the amount of funding from the government has reduced, and the costs have been passed on to the students in terms of higher fees.

This is not a sustainable situation. In the modern world, higher education is becoming necessary, and the costs are too high for most people. Specifically, higher education is failing most people – they are getting no, or sub-standard education because of the lack of affordable quality institutions.

How can this be fixed?

One obvious way to improve life for the new student majority is to raise the quality of the education without raising the price. This is clearly the ideal, whose principal obstacle is not conceptual but practical: no one knows how. The value of our core product—the Bachelor’s degree—has fallen in every year since 2000, while tuition continues to increase faster than inflation.

The other way to help these students would be to dramatically reduce the price or time required to get an education of acceptable quality (and for acceptable read “enabling the student to get a better job”, their commonest goal.) This is a worse option in every respect except one, which is that it may be possible.

The first option, increasing quality without increasing the price, can only happen if governments starts increasing funding for education again. But, that is unlikely to happen, he argues:

If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.

The number of high-school graduates underserved or unserved by higher education today dwarfs the number of people for whom that system works well. The reason to bet on the spread of large-scale low-cost education isn’t the increased supply of new technologies. It’s the massive demand for education, which our existing institutions are increasingly unable to handle. That demand will go somewhere.

Those of us in the traditional academy could have a hand in shaping that future, but doing so will require us to relax our obsessive focus on elite students, institutions, and faculty. It will require us to stop regarding ourselves as irreplaceable occupiers of sacred roles, and start regarding ourselves as people who do several jobs society needs done, only one of which is creating new knowledge.

Read the full article

The key takeaway for me is that we should stop expecting the system (i.e. government) to come in and fix the system. Instead, we should accept the fact that the goal has changed. Instead of focusing on trying to increase the number of people to whom we can provide very high quality education, we should probably focus on reducing the cost at which we can provide some acceptable quality of education to large masses.